People often say that reality is constructed. It sounds a bit like wishful thinking or plain old sales talk if we don’t understand how it works. How is reality constructed? Imagine a constant stream of millions of pieces of LEGO flowing towards you.
The first thing you have to understand is that the input or available information and your perception of this reality is not the same thing. It’s a bit like asking people to pass the salt only for them to look funny at you and point out that it’s right in front of you. The location of the salt shaker did not change but now all of a sudden you can see it and before you couldn’t. Why is that?
Well our brain is like a rather helpful assistant: it sorts through the information and only puts the important stuff on your desk. Luckily that’s how it works or your head would probably explode trying to make sense of useless information like chewing gum wrappers or the fact that three red cars passed somewhere to your right.
This assistant has figured out a couple of tricks on the job: she knows what you like and don’t like and what is important and what you have constantly ignored in the past so like a good assistant she has adapted herself to that situation. So when deciding which of the millions of LEGO pieces you want she has developed some shortcuts like ‘blue is good’ or ‘avoid triangles’. In case you want to brag these shortcuts are called mental heuristics.
Now depending on what information she puts in front of you and whether you like the building blocks for your reality, you will feel certain emotions: happiness (things are going the way you want), pride (you played an important part in something that went right) or anxiety (you sense some kind of threat that you may or may not be able to articulate).
Here’s the kicker: heuristics don’t care that much about your positive emotions if you don’t put some effort into it. We survived as a species because both positive and negative emotions, however the negative ones are more time-sensitive than the positive ones. If there is real danger you have to get away now. If you feel happy that may make you more likely to grow, but there is not the same amount of time pressure on you. So the mental shortcuts provide us with lots of anxiety inducing material. Unless we mentally teach ourselves that these ‘threats’ are not real.
Now these mechanisms don’t just apply to the present tense. When we try to remember things we are more likely to remember events that match our present mood. Therefore if you are depressed it’s easier to access sad memories than happy ones and vice versa.
Knowing some of these mechanisms can really help us to understand both why we think and feel the way we do and what needs to be changed. It helps us to change which LEGO blocks we see, choose and eventually use.